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What is Network Attached Storage (NAS)?

  • September 19, 2023
  • 15 min read
StarWind Solutions Architect. Alex has begun his journey as a hobbyist in the virtualization and storage sphere. He possesses extensive knowledge in networking, storage technologies, and virtualization.
StarWind Solutions Architect. Alex has begun his journey as a hobbyist in the virtualization and storage sphere. He possesses extensive knowledge in networking, storage technologies, and virtualization.

A NAS, or Network-attached storage, is a dedicated file storage system connected to a network. It allows network users and clients to store and retrieve data from a centralized disk capacity.

The main purpose of a NAS is to provide centralized and easily accessible storage to different users and devices in a network. Typically, a NAS operates as a standalone device and does not have keyboards or monitors attached to it. Therefore, they are managed and configured through a browser-based utility.

In today’s networking environment, SAN (Storage Area Network) and NAS are the two most distinct storage technologies. Each of them serves diverse purposes but can also act as a catalyst for each other. Read on to learn more about their difference and uses.

Network Attached Storage (NAS)

Types of NAS or Who Uses What

Traditional NAS systems, aka “Scale-up NAS,” utilize a very straightforward scaling approach that involves expanding system capacity by adding more memory and drives or by replacing lower capacity drives with bigger ones. Modern scale-up NAS devices can often accommodate huge amounts of data, which makes it an appealing choice for small to medium-sized businesses. The extent to which you can beef up a scale-up NAS depends on its hardware limitations. When the system’s needs surpass what the existing hardware can accommodate, there’s no other option but to invest in a new NAS device. This approach leads to a common challenge where adding more servers increases overall infrastructure complexity and demands more human resources to maintain it.

In a Scale-out NAS setup, the overall storage capacity can be expanded by adding more NAS devices, each with its own set of resources in a cluster-like fashion. When the scale-out system hits its capacity ceiling, it’s an easy process to incorporate another device into the network to increase the total storage space. Such an approach raises the total system capacity limits and improves performance by distributing the workload. Reduced CapEx is also a plus, as you can add new NAS devices as needed, avoiding the over-provisioning associated with traditional high-capacity NAS systems.

NAS Gateways – Also known as NAS controllers, is a combination of NAS and SAN storage architecture.  The NAS gateway provides the NAS functionality in front of a back-end SAN infrastructure. So, the resulting NAS can be easily scaled by adding more hard drives to back-end storage enclosures or by incorporating additional SAN arrays. Such architecture provides improved scalability and allows the expansion of traditional SAN-centric environments with additional NAS functionality.

We can also classify the different types of NAS devices based on their user base.

Enterprise NAS devices that are high-end contain more drive slots to maintain a more advanced RAID configurations, which combine lots of hard disks to improve performance and redundancy. This type of NAS is often used by large organizations to host business apps, store large volumes of data, and support VMs. Enterprises also benefit from its built-in high-throughput network connectivity since they have lots of employees accessing the storage.

DIY & Small Business NAS – Even though small businesses and home users do not need lots of storage and the highest performance, they can still benefit from NAS systems. Small NAS devices have fewer slots for disk drives and support simpler RAID configurations. That is why they are suitable for home users and small businesses who need local clients to be able to access data from centralized file storage. DIY or consumer NAS can be used for general file storage and also as a backup system, file, print, and multimedia server.

NAS components

A network-attached storage system is made up of different components that work together to bring storage and file-sharing capabilities to end-users connected to the same network. These components may slightly differ depending on the model and manufacturer, but we will talk about the core ones.

CPU – At the core of every NAS is a CPU (central processing unit), responsible for running the NAS OS and apps and handling other tasks like user authentication and data management. The CPU of a NAS device is slightly different from that of a typical computer or server. The latter uses a general-purpose CPU, while NAS devices use a specialized CPU designed for low power consumption.

Network interface – DIY and NAS systems designed for home use might allow connection to the network through USB or Wi-Fi connectivity. However, any NAS device that is intended for business purposes should have a dedicated cabled Ethernet interface, which will give the NAS a unique IP address. This enables seamless and fast data sharing and file serving.

Storage – Every NAS system must come with a physical storage device, which comes in the form of hard disk drives (HDDs) or solid-state drives (SSDs). These devices provide the storage capacity for files and data. Typically, users can add as many drives as the NAS system can support.

Operating system – Just like a conventional computer, NAS devices also come with an operating system that manages and organizes the different functions of the NAS hardware components.

Benefits of Network Attached Storage

By now, you should have already been getting a glimpse of how beneficial it will be to adopt a NAS system. However, let’s talk about the most important advantages of using a NAS:

Centralized storage – With a NAS system, users get a central repository for storing data. This significantly helps in data management and organization, making it easy to access and share information, especially in a business setting.

Ease of use – having a storage system that can’t be easily accessible or difficult to use beats its purpose. However, NAS devices are often user-friendly and come with an intuitive web-based interface for controlling the system.

Data sharing and collaboration – As we mentioned earlier, NAS enables seamless and fast data sharing and collaboration among employees or users. This is particularly useful for teams working on the same project.

Data redundancy and protection – Thanks to the support of RAID configurations, NAS systems can provide data redundancy and protection against drive failure. Also, NAS systems will let you know well in advance if any of your drives have started to fail. This gives users time to replace and prevent data loss.

Scalability – NAS systems allow for the addition of extra hard drives for the expansion of storage space. This comes in handy as the business scales up.

Cost-efficiency – With a NAS system, only a one-time down payment is needed. Any other additional cost will be to update components. However, with other storage options like the cloud, users have to pay monthly.

NAS vs. SAN vs. DAS

NAS systems offer dedicated file-level storage through a network. It allows for both local and remote access to data through network connections. This storage system is best suited for small and medium-sized businesses looking for reliable, flexible, scalable, and minimal maintenance data storage solutions.

SAN (storage area network) is a dedicated high-performance storage system that provides block-level storage of data. This technology is mostly based on Fibre Channel – a fast data transfer protocol. SAN is an environment that can be accessed by TCP/IP networks but is not affected by TCP network traffic. SAN storage is a very sophisticated system designed to support complex business apps and databases. It is generally used in enterprise-level companies, data centres or cloud computing environments.

Direct attached storage, or DAS, is a simple, low-maintenance, low-cost storage solution. This type of storage is connected directly to the computer or servers through SCSI or other connections. It is similar to an external hard drive inserted into a personal computer. DAS is not designed for sharing data across the network. Furthermore, it is not suitable for businesses that are scaling rapidly.

What StarWind Offers

StarWind offers a Linux-based NAS & SAN solution for organizations of all sizes who need to optimize the use of their hardware resources. StarWind SAN & NAS is a software that transforms your server or a group of servers into a powerful and easy to use storage appliance. It supports all industry-standard block and file protocols, like SMB3, NFSv3, NFSv4, NFSv4.1, and iSCSI.

StarWind SAN & NAS comes with a Web-based UI, Text-based UI, vCenter Plugin, and Command-line interface (CLI) that promotes simplicity. Furthermore, it helps organizations or individuals repurpose their servers into backup targets when using Veeam. This software leverages all the features of ZFS to ensure optimal storage use, data safety, and data integrity. Users can choose their preferred redundancy configuration for their local disks among ZFS, Hardware RAID, or Linux MD/RAID.

This material has been prepared in collaboration with Asah Syxtus Mbuo, Technical Writer at StarWind.


Hey! Enjoyed the Alex's article on types of network-attached storage? Deciding between NAS and SAN for your virtualized environment?
Dmytro Malynka
Dmytro Malynka StarWind Virtual SAN Product Manager

Why not have both? I recommend considering an easy-to-use NAS for quick file share provisioning and a high-performance SAN for virtual machine storage. Moreover, for 99.99% uptime of your business-critical apps and services, consider implementing clustering and high availability. Sounds complicated? It’s really not. StarWind Virtual SAN (VSAN) provides highly-available shared storage for Hyper-V, vSphere, and KVM clusters and includes built-in NFS and SMB file server functionality. With StarWind VSAN, simplicity is key: you can utilize the local disks of your hypervisor hosts to create shared HA storage for your VMs in just a few clicks. Interested in learning more? Check out what the final solution looks like and book a short StarWind Virtual SAN demo now!